- Grove City, Pennsylvania

February 5, 2014

EXTRA INNINGS: Keeping up with Joneses not easy for frugal Pirates

By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist

OPINION — A YEAR AGO at this time, Pirate fans were fretting about the lack of quality in right field, at shortstop, and at first base.

The arrivals of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau led to a 2013 rousing success for the Bucs.

Now, less than two months from opening day, Pirate fans are again fretting about the lack of quality in right field, at shortstop, and at first base.

The Pirates could have re-signed the 36-year-old Byrd for two years at $8 million per, costing them $16 million.

They passed, banking on the presumed arrival of Gregory Polanco in mid-summer, following the paths of the team’s two current outfield gazelles, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

Polanco is on everyone’s top prospects list and did nothing this winter but provide justification for the high praise directed his way.

He won both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the Dominican Winter League, where he batted .331 and got on base 42.8 percent of the time.

MLB Network's Peter Gammons called Polanco the "single most significant winter ball story." St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak predicts the Marte-McCutchen-Polanco outfield will be "the best outfield in the league."

While 35-year-old shortstop Clint Barmes has been re-signed by the Pirates for another season, 26-year-old Jordy Mercer heads into the new season as the number one shortstop. Mercer offers more offense than did Barmes. Mercer hit .285 last season, with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 103 games. By crunch time in September he had become the team’s number one shortstop. In December, general manager Neal Huntington said the team is “comfortable” with Mercer as the everyday shortstop in 2014, that feeling bolstered by still-available free agent Stephen Drew’s search for a four-year $8 million deal.

Huntington also has 21-year-old shortstop Alen Hanson, whom’s Tom Singer calls “the most fascinating infield prospect in the Pittsburgh system.” Even at his young age, Hanson has four full seasons in the minors and will play his first Triple-A season in 2014.

So the Bucs figure to have saved a combined $64 million over the next four years by passing on Byrd and Drew, opting instead for a patchwork right field platoon until Polcanco arrives this summer and playing Mercer at short, at least until Hanson gets here. And last year, Barmes batted better as a backup. In addition, Mercer and Polanco figure to cost the Pirates under $10 million combined over the next four seasons.

At first, the Pirates could have offered Mike Napoli the $32 million the Red Sox gave for his work over the next two seasons. Or they could have matched the Rays’ three-year $21 million deal they handed James Loney. No doubt they could have kept Justin Morneau by matching Colorado’s two-year $13.5 million deal.

Instead, they have Gaby Sanchez, whom they signed for $2.3 million to bat against southpaws; they continue to look for a lefty platoon partner, with these three players mentioned the most:

ä Mitch Moreland, Texas Rangers. The 28-year-old batted .232 with 23 home runs and 60 RBIs in 147 games last season. lists his projected 2014 salary at $2.7 million.

ä Ike Davis, New York Mets. The 27-year-old batted .205 in 2013 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs in 103 games. His salary will be $3.5 million.

ä Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays. The 30-year-old batted .288 with 23 home runs and 67 RBIs in 143 games and will get $7 million this season.

Any of those three will require a player in return. Reportedly the Rangers asked for Justin Wilson and the Jays inquired about Neil Walker.

Another lefty first baseman who will get $2.75 million this year and $5 million in 2015 batted .233 in 2013 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs. He would not have cost the Pirates a player and is a player who wanted to stay in Pittsburgh.

His name is Garrett Jones. Every day he’s looking better and better, no?

Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for the Allied News.